by Nona Blyth Cloud
There are 93 days this year between Summer Solstice on June 21, and Autumnal Equinox on September 23. Today is day 53 of that in-between time. Even as temperatures scorch us, we are closer to summer’s end than its beginning.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), our most famous American woman poet, is much loved and often quoted, yet she remains out-of-focus. We have the poems – glimpses of her extraordinary inner life – and facts about her outer life, but she remains elusive, a figure of myth and legend.
Her poems are inconsistently reproduced – punctuation and paragraph breaks added, even word order changed. It’s a struggle when most of the poems were hand-written in journals. You think you know a poem, but you may find a slightly different poem in one source from the poem you’ll find in another. She often didn’t give titles to poems. Editors numbered them, usually with Roman numerals, which don’t always match either.
Rachel Hadas (1948 – ), daughter of renowned Classical scholar Moses Hadas, inherited her father’s gift for languages. She’s translated Tibillus, Baudelaire, and the modern Greek poets C.P. Cavafy and George Seferis, among others. Her busy life as a gifted poet, professor, essayist and translator was turned upside down when her husband was diagnosed with dementia at age 61, and she became his primary care-giver. During the years before her husband was moved into a facility, reading and writing were Hadas’ safe haven. “Poetry has always been a way of coping for me … since my father died when I was 17, I’ve turned to poetry not only to express my feelings … but consistently to figure out what I was feeling at a given time.”
Contrast this untitled poem by Emily Dickinson with The End of Summer, by Rachel Hadas:
As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away—
Too imperceptible at last
To seem like Perfidy—
A Quietness distilled
As Twilight long begun,
Or Nature spending with herself
The Dusk drew earlier in—
The Morning foreign shone—
A courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
As Guest, that would be gone—
And thus, without a Wing
Or service of a Keel
Our Summer made her light escape
Into the Beautiful.
The End of Summer
Sweet smell of phlox drifting across the lawn—
An early warning of the end of summer.
August is fading fast, and by September
the little purple flowers will all be gone.
Season, project, and vacation are done.
One more year in every body’s life.
Add a notch to the old hunting knife
Time keeps testing with a horny thumb.
Over the summer months hung an unspoken
aura of urgency. In late July
galactic pulsings filled the midnight sky
like silent screaming, so that, strangely woken,
we looked at one another in the dark,
then at the milky magical debris
arcing across, dwarfing our meek mortality.
There were two ways to live: get on with work,
redeem the time, ignore the imminence
of cataclysm; or else take it slow,
be as tranquil as the neighbors’ cow
we love to tickle through the barbed wire fence
(she paces through her days in massive innocence,
or, seeing green pastures, we imagine so).
In fact, not being cows, we have no choice.
Summer or winter, country, city, we
are prisoners from the start and automatically,
hemmed in, harangued by the one clamorous voice.
Not light but language shocks us out of sleep
ideas of doom transformed to meteors
we translate back to portents of the wars
looming above the nervous watch we keep.
Dickinson makes us uneasy with words like Grief, Perfidy, Sequestered, and harrowing. We wait for a metaphorical shoe to drop, then she surprises us with “Our Summer made her light escape Into the Beautiful.” Many have interpreted Dickinson’s poem. For some, end of Summer represents moving through Grief and Loss. Her “We” seems like Family.
Rachel Hadas reflects a “modern” kind of angst: silent screaming, imminence of cataclysm, prisoners, doom, and portents of wars. Summer meteor showers are both Nature’s fireworks and mirrors of man-made disasters. Her “We” shifts between Couple and Humanity.
I think the poems share apprehension about Change and Time Passing; uncertainty about what revision, growth and aging will mean. Adults and children alike have ambivalent feelings at summer’s end as we put away ice chests and bathing suits, knowing we must soon move into the next chapter of our “real” life’s effort and responsibility.
Wishing you cooler temperatures, and changes that are all for the better.
Thank you for reading Word Cloud. Visitors and comments welcome.
SOURCES and Further Reading
As imperceptibly as Grief http://allpoetry.com/As-imperceptibly-as-grief
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, ISBN 0-316-18413-6 (Pbk)
The End of Summer – http://blog.perspectivesjournal.org/2014/08/30/the-end-of-summer/
Halfway Down the Hall – Wesleyan University Press, published by University Press of New England ©1998 by Rachel Hadas – ISBN: 978-0-98195-2251-1 (Pbk)
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud